Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In the past five instalments we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one who discovered her husband’s affair during lockdown and another who found out her husband had a vasectomy and didn’t tell her – even after they’d been trying for a baby.
This week we talk about breaking up – we chat to a woman about how she told her husband she wanted a divorce and speak to the experts about the best way to have this conversation. Plus we learn the biggest mistake women make when initiating a divorce and the biggest mistake when having it land in your lap, unwanted.
When Jenny told her husband of 12 years that she wanted a divorce, it had been a long time coming. In many ways, she surprised herself – perhaps both of them – that she was the one to finally call time on their marriage.
“He wanted out,” she tells. “But he just couldn’t be ‘the bad guy’ who did the divorcing. His head was already so far out of the relationship and it felt very much over.”
So one Saturday morning when their daughter was on camp, she woke up feeling calm, but resolute that this was the day it had to come to an end. Today was the day.
“It was spare of the moment, but it was also a long time coming,” she tells.
But the thing she hadn’t counted on was that her husband – although seemingly unwilling to ask her for a divorce – had clearly already worked through a plan for when it happened.
“I told him I thought we should divorce at a time where I didn’t even know the login to our bank accounts,” she says. “I was working full-time, but he looked after all the finances. I didn’t know how much was left on our mortgage, who our insurer was – nothing.”
Jenny and her husband had held quite traditional roles in their marriage – she took primary responsibility for looking after their daughter, meals and the home, while he ran the figures.
“I had trusted him, but I shouldn’t have,” she says. She soon discovered that their financial position was a lot different to what she’d thought and suspected that he had other accounts and credit cards she didn’t know about. He already had a lawyer and accountant who began emailing her about splitting their assets. “It was, in short, a living nightmare,” she says.
Sadly, it’s a fairly familiar tale to divorce coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes. She often has clients – mainly female – who don’t know what’s left on their mortgage, or if they even have one, or what the house is worth, or what’s in their bank account. Many don’t even have their own personal email account. Her job is to get them the right advice and assistance pronto, but she also works with women who are making that decision to leave to make sure they have their ducks in a row before they have the big talk.
“We get them organized to leave, which is important,” she says. “We work through all the finances, we get them educated and informed in terms of legal advice, we talk about custody and how that might work.
Besides the practical side of things, she also prepares her clients emotionally. “We talk about new beginnings, you know, what’s my purpose, what’s my identity? A big part of it is actually about your wellbeing, because going through this process, you can end up feeling like a different person. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, or you end up overweight, or any addictions that may have been simmering get worse particularly in terms of alcohol. So we look at support systems – family support, friends support and professional help.”
Fellow divorce coach, Kimberlee Sweeney of Degrees of Separation says she empowers her clients to get an understanding of their financial position – and what they might need to look at doing to improve it – before they leave the relationship. “There’s a lot to think about,” she says, “But we break it down. What will that future look like? What can they do to financially support themselves in the lead up to thinking about divorcing? What things can be put in place for the children?”
Getting emotional support is key – which is where she sees women making the biggest mistake when divorcing.
“They run off to a laywer and get legal advice and they’re still a bit unsure about what they want to do,” she tells. “But suddenly their lawyer is sending their partner a letter about separating when they haven’t even had those full discussions with their partner. The biggest mistake I see women making is letting their lawyer drive it – you have to stay in the driver’s seat yourself.”
“If you want to go to a lawyer and get some advice, that’s absolutely fine, but don’t put anything in place until you’re absolutely sure you want to leave, because you can’t take those things back, and that usually sets you on the road to disaster and it’s not going to be an amicable divorce.”
She also sees many women who are on the opposite side of that dynamic, and suddenly find themselves dealing with a lawyer’s letter, announcing their split. “Those women are emotional and can’t see straight – they don’t want the divorce, they want to try and repair the relationship. There’s a lot to work through before we really even get down to the nitty-gritty of getting them ready for those conversations with lawyers.”
She says the biggest mistake those women often make is engaging a lawyer to act for them, who they end up treating like a counsellor or therapist.
“A really good family lawyer will say, ‘look, for the money you’re spending with me on the counselling side of things, you’re better to go and see a divorce coach who can give you that clarity and work on calming the emotions involved’. That way, you’re not spending $400 an hour at the lawyer, where you cry through your appointments and don’t make a lot of headway.”
Bridgette Jackson says she sees this dynamic happening all too often also, which is why she urges women to see a divorce coach to navigate the tricky waters before talking to a lawyer. She agrees the first step to having an amicable split – if you’re the one initiating it – is to have those difficult conversations yourself, rather than leaving it to lawyer to be the one to deliver the news.
When she has a client who is positive that they would like to go through with a divorce, she actually helps them form a script for telling their husband.
So what exactly does a break-up script look like?
“You’ve got to sit down and be clear,” she tells. “Because if you’re not clear about your intentions, this can be miscommunicated, and the other partner might think there’s still an opportunity to get back together. I always tell clients that you need to talk about the positive in the first instance – you know, ‘we’ve had eight wonderful years together and three children, but things have changed..’ And you talk about it from a ‘we’ or ‘our’ rather than an ‘I’ because that can be very confronting for someone to hear. So, ‘we are not aligned on the same page anymore for a number of reasons’ is a good sentence.”
Bridgette warns against getting into the nitty gritties of what will happen in the future – including those conversations about the splitting of assets, custody etc. “The other partner needs some time to actually digest what’s going on – whether it’s the space of a week or two,” she tells.
And miraculously, on a number of occasions that break-up script has been a complete turning point for couples that it’s actually instead led to a conversation where they both wanted to stay in the relationship.
“Communication is key in relationships,” she says. And for some couples that communication has really been lacking and it’s taken a conversation so serious – presented in a very calm, caring way – that has finally allowed them to be completely transparent about their feelings, wants and needs.
“It makes me so emotional when that happens,” she tells. “It’s one of the best parts of the job and I normally have to take myself offline for a while because I’m really overcome with emotion. It makes me love what I’m doing.”
THE DIVORCE DIARIES
If you’d like to share your own experiences, tips or advice (we can keep you anonymous if you’d prefer!) please do email me at [email protected].
Missed an instalment? Catch-up here!
Week one: Women Tell: ‘My Lockdown Betrayal’ ‘He Ended Up With My Pilates Instructor!’ Charting the Rise of Divorce Coaches in NZ
Week two: When Are You Most At Risk of Splitting? Plus, Can Divorces Be Contagious?
Week three: “My Husband Didn’t Tell Me He’d Had a Vasectomy Until A Year Into Trying For a Baby.”
Week four: “Mum’s Reaction Was: ‘Oh Darling, I Kept Telling You to Get Your Grey Roots Dyed!’” What to – and What NOT to Say – After a Split
Week five: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”